State juvenile justice reforms have major implications for Douglas County facilities
photo by: Elvyn Jones
Sweeping changes stemming from the state’s 2016 reform of juvenile justice are calling into question the future of the Douglas County Juvenile Detention Center and the adjacent day school for at-risk students, said Pam Weigand, director of Douglas County Criminal Justice Services.
The state in the 2016 legislative session enacted juvenile justice reforms that were meant to reduce the number of youths in custody and address behavioral issues in ways that minimize the exposure of minors to the criminal justice system, Weigand said.
“It used to be kids could be in detention for a misdemeanor crime,” she said. “Anymore, that isn’t going to happen.”
With the success of the state reforms, Weigand and Douglas County Commission Chair Nancy Thellman question whether the county could downsize or even do without a juvenile detention center. Thellman added that it may be possible to house the county’s much-reduced population of detained juveniles at a facility in a neighboring county. That could create the opportunity to reuse the current juvenile facility to help relieve existing overcrowding at the county jail.
The juvenile detention center opened in March 1995. The center’s design is similar to the minimum-security pods at the county jail. Within the center, two levels of cells line two sides of an interior recreational commons area. Inmates are under constant observation and under the direct supervision of staff in the locked-down facility, which is also constantly monitored by cameras.
Five inmates were at the 18-bed center on Thursday, Weigand said. That was an unusual day for the center, at 330 Industrial Lane in North Lawrence, and below the current daily average of about 12 inmates, Weigand said. The facility houses young offenders from Douglas County, as well as those from 12 other northeast Kansas counties that use the center on a contractual basis.
As an alternative to detention under the 2016 reforms, the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office and the District Court developed what are called immediate intervention programs for at-risk youth, Weigand said. Those programs look to keep juveniles in their homes. If a juvenile successfully completes a program, no charges will be filed from a misdemeanor offense that got the youth involved in the criminal justice system, she said.
As the number of intervention programs has increased, the population at the center has declined from the days when the facility often exceeded its 18-bed capacity, Weigand said. Douglas County started working in 2012 to implement alternatives to detention programs like those included in the 2016 state legislation, she said. The center’s average daily population of in-county inmates dropped from 9.89 juveniles in 2011 to 8.89 in 2017. The average daily population of out-of-county placements declined from 13.6 to 11.8 during that same period.
The next phase of the state’s reforms, which will become effective July 1, 2019, will further empty juvenile detention centers with the end of detentions for children in need of care, Weigand said. Children in need of care are runaways, frequent school truants or teens whose parents are unable to manage them or who may have been involved in less serious crimes like shoplifting, trespassing or battery, she said.
At-risk day school complications
The coming end of detention for children in need of care also will have consequences at the day school that Douglas County Youth Services has offered at the center since 1998 in partnership with the District Court and the Lawrence school district, Weigand said. The 10- to 18-year-old students whom the District Court places in the day school are often children in need of care who are at risk of being removed from their homes. The day school currently has 27 students.
Students from throughout the county can be placed in the day school, but the Lawrence school district provides the school’s three teachers and receives the per-pupil state aid associated with its students, Weigand said.
The day school occupies two former cells and a larger activity room that were converted into classrooms, Weigand said. It has always been a secure facility where students are patted down each morning for weapons in an entry vestibule before entering the locked-down day school.
Weigand said it was her understanding that starting on July 1, 2019, the day school can no longer be locked down. The county could remove the lockdown features and continue to use the classrooms, but day school students take recreational breaks and eat meals in the adjoining detention center’s common area, which must remain locked down, she said.
Separate day school dining and recreational facilities could be built at the site, but the question remains regarding the need for a detention center as large as the current facility with fewer juveniles being incarcerated, Weigand said.
A stakeholder discussion about the future of the detention center needs to occur, especially in view of the well-documented space needs at the Douglas County Jail, Thellman said.
“It’s an interesting proposition of how that facility fits into our larger criminal justice needs,” Thellman said. “I think we are at the very start of discussion about the future of the juvenile detention center.”
The county also is establishing a youth behavioral health coalition with representatives from the county school districts, community health providers, the county and the city of Lawrence, Thellman said.
One of the first tasks of the coalition will be identifying an appropriate location for the day school, she said.
“The day school is an absolute necessity,” she said. “It is a very valuable part of our school districts’ work to support high-risk students.”